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Malcolm Williamson Concertos & Two-Piano Sonata

Malcolm Williamson (organ & piano)
Richard Rodney Bennett (piano)

Concerto for Organ and Orchestra.
Piano Concerto No.3 in E flat.
Sonata for Two Pianos
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Adrian Boult and Leonard Dommett

Lyrita SRCD280

The revival of the important Lyrita label under the umbrella of Nimbus/Wyastone has brought back into circulation many much loved recordings of British music. Whether this one was loved as well as admired may be a moot point? Malcom Williamson (1931-2003, CBE & Master of the Queen's music from 1975) was always a controversial figure;the man leaps out of the page as well as from the loud speakers.

His notes are vivid and communicative. Of the Organ Concerto he says that it was greeted iwth enthusiastic abuse by conservatives of the organ world for being too venturesome, by critics for being not venturesome enough, and by Baroque enthusiasts for using a Romantic Organ at Guildford.

"It recovered", he wrote, and certainly these 1972/1975 recordings come up fresh as paint and yielding nothing to the latest SACDs (q.v. article by Ying Chang).

But has it? What chance of an airing in The Proms? It is unconventional, not superficially virtuosic for the soloist (Williamson taught himself to play the organ to study Messiaen's music), craggy and unpredictable; partly tonal, but that doesn't make it any easier. I have played it on the CD twice in the day received and didn't feel that had exhausted its interest; surely a sufficient recommendation for prospective purchasers, especially for a beautifully produced low-priced re-issue?

The other works are substantial, a four movement piano concerto (nodding only obliquely to Brahms) with quite a complex structure which Williamson shares with us. That is virtuosic, with plenty of opportunity for the composer-soloist to display his skills. set off by vivid orchestration. It could become popular, I'd think, if someone gave it another airing? Just as interesting as several which have achieved regular positions in "the canon".

And for bonus, a double piano sonata played with R R Bennett, a leading fellow composer still with us; rather bleak because of Scandinavian winter associations, with Spring and light at the end. The production and digital remastering is thorough and wholly satisfactory and this is a very desirable CD to acquire..

Reviewers often have (secret) agendas, sometimes disguised under pseudonyms. At advanced age, why not declare in this instance that Malcolm Williamson played a significant part in my life and my musician son's? As a boy, he sang to Williamson in the composer's home some of the R L Stevenson song cycle In a Child's Garden, and to Malcolm Williamson's accompaniment; an exciting event in a child's life.

Williamson was impressed enough that plans were made for them to record the cycle together; publisher's considerations intervened, and the recording went ahead with April Cantelo, Colin Davis' first wife... (Not much sign of that recording on search!)

Simon Woolf subsequently recorded it [Unicorn RHS 316, 1969] with Steuart Bedford - later to become famous as Britten's conductor at Aldeburgh. It received gratifying acclamation in the main review journals, but that LP too suffered from short term publicising before the demise of that record company... [See reviews and purchase arrangements for CD transfer.]

Without Malcolm Willamson's personal enthusiasm it would not exist; Musical Pointers carries a comparative review of Simon's performance against Ronald Stevenson's settings of the same poems on Delphian.]

I am delighted to have this belated opportunity to get to know three substantial works of this prolific composer which I didn't recall having heard before. Do buy it - and listen on line to one of the Child's Garden songs!

Peter Grahame Woolf